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Eddie Gillanders: Scottish Government are "dilly-dallying" over farming policy

By Eddie Gillanders

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The former Cabinet Secretary for Rural Affairs, Fergus Ewing, the MSP for Inverness and Nairn, was back on his old beat when he officially opened Scotland’s national beef event on a Dumfries-shire farm.

Fergus Ewing (inset) stepped in to address the event on the Dalswinton Estate.
Fergus Ewing (inset) stepped in to address the event on the Dalswinton Estate.

Mr Ewing stepped in at short notice following the disgraceful decision of his successor, Marie Gougeon, to pull out after having accepted the invitation to open the event several months ago.

What justification she could have for turning down the opportunity of speaking to farmers in Scotland’s main agricultural sector – which, as Mr Ewing pointed out, represents 26 per cent of Scottish agricultural output – is difficult to fathom. It is a dereliction of duty and smacks of the lack of interest and support for Scotland’s main industry of the Scottish Government despite Ms Gougeon’s pledges of support in speeches to the Scottish Parliament.

But words are one thing, action is another matter, and we have seen very little in the way of action as the government pussy-foots its way to developing a new agricultural policy which is due to kick in from 2025-26 onwards.

The constant dilly-dallying takes no account of the long-term nature of farming and the time farmers will need to adapt to whatever new policy is finally agreed.

Mr Ewing set the ball rolling during his time as Rural Secretary and by the time he was unceremoniously side-lined for allegedly being too close to the farming industry, he had set the scene for the new policy to be developed. The opportunity to be ahead of the game has been scandalously squandered since he left office.

He was unrepentant in his speech that working closely with the industry was the right thing to do in order to understand the practical implications of farming policy and secure the input of farmers in developing future policy.

It is more than two years since former NFU Scotland president, Jim Walker, as chairman of the specialist group appointed by Mr Ewing to put forward proposals for the future of the beef industry, produced his 200-plus page Suckler Beef Climate Report, which made comprehensive recommendations for the development and delivery of a policy for sustainable suckler beef production in Scotland. This was accepted at the time by Mr Ewing in his role as Rural Secretary and by the industry as the way forward.

Scotland’s beef suckler herd, the report emphasised, is the engine room which drives economic activity and environmental management across large swathes of rural Scotland, providing an irreplaceable way of turning grazing land, including poor quality grazing in the hills and uplands, into a high quality source of protein in the form of beef.

The report pointed out that the national suckler herd had been allowed to decline by 20 per cent between 2000 and 2020 which had repercussions right down the supply chain with one in five jobs in agriculture in Scotland dependent on suckler production, 4500 jobs in the red meat processing industry and 30,000 jobs in the wider supply chain.

Mr Ewing said the conclusions of the report were as relevant today as when the report was published.

“This should be the basis on how we support the beef sector,” he said. “Beef cow numbers are still falling and we must stem this loss as we need critical mass to support the whole supply chain.”

He suggested that the £160 million of convergence support which the government had won back from the UK government, along with new money, should be used to support the beef sector.

He admitted that some of the new money had been lent to another department to “plug a hole” but needed to be returned to the agricultural budget to support the beef industry.

The prime objective of agricultural policy, he argued, should be the maintenance of quality food production in a sustainable way through direct support.

“The Ukraine war has shown us that we can’t take food security for granted,” he said. “We need to appreciate what farmers do and ignore the ludicrous vegan campaigns and universities having no meat days. Meat should be part of a healthy diet and the silent majority of the population agree.”

He counselled strongly against following the example of the Netherlands where the government had adopted an “absurd policy” of a mandatory cull of the beef herd.

“Following that path is the way to ruin,” he asserted. “We must support the farming industry as a whole and understand that the backbone of the industry is the beef sector.”

In a post speech interview, Mr Ewing also hit out at the failure of green minister, Lorna Slater, to authorise the continued use of Asulox to control bracken which was the only effective way of controlling this evasive species and did untold damage to habitats and nature. A ban on Asulox could leave a barren countryside, less attractive to tourists.

“There are only days left for Ms Slater to make a decision,” he said. “Even if the Health and Safety Executive rules against it, we can still authorise it in Scotland. I expect the UK Government to authorise it and if we don’t in Scotland, it will be an outrage.

“There is no place for the urban-centric green party in Scotland. Too often, we are seeing the green tail wagging the big yellow dog.”

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